[Sidebar] August 3 - 10, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Don José Tequilas

Back in fine style

by Bill Rodriguez

351 Atwells Ave., Providence, 454-8951
Open Mon, Wed, and Thurs, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

I am a happy culinary camper -- Don José is back in town. Generous portions, heavy on the cilantro at every opportunity, a flan to prompt covetousness across the table, and the ceviche . . . but more about that later. Re-opening in April after an absence of nearly a year, the Mexican restaurant is now called Don José Tequilas. It's no longer in Olneyville, where it had been for three years, but the former Federal Hill location of the Fuji, plunked amid all the Italian restaurants like an empanada proud among cannoli.

The decor is fancier, with dangling ivy and walls sponge-painted papaya, but there's still the stray sombrero and serape. Cacti, faux and real, line the high window sill. Missing is the Virgin of Guadelupe wall hanging, perhaps because greater faith in the food has displaced prayer. Gone also is José Garcia, who gave his blessing and loaned his name to his partner in the previous place, Jaime Gaviria, who now serves as host and bartender. For the kitchen, Gaviria tapped Raquel Diaz, who brings some specialties from her native Yucatán peninsula.

Don José now has a full bar instead of just beer and wine, with top-shelf tequilas available for sipping, and margaritas the specialty, of course. The one I had was superb, the liquor plentiful and not so much as the idea of a packaged mix around. Mexican sodas and horchata, an almond beverage, are also available. Like the setting, the menu has been upscaled a bit, though not so much the prices. For example, a special of pan-fried rainbow trout in white wine, lemon and butter -- the Mexican touch being cilantro -- was $11.95.

A large bowl of slightly spicy salsa and some corn chips are placed before arriving diners. Among the appetizers, we had a sampler, the aperitivo especial ($8.95). There were wedges of cheese and chicken tacos, the latter with succulently marinated meat. A baked combination of Monterey Jack cheese and bits of sausage meat was oily but enjoyable. An unusual and delicious part of the combination is brazo de reina, a Yucatan specialty that blends spinach with masa farina and eggs into a tasty, huskless tamale. There's a choice of three soups: beef, vegetable, seafood, and a daily special, each $5.95.

Most traditional items are available, from burritos to enchiladas -- not to mention "steamed goat shanks in guajillo sauce." Interesting daily items that caught my eye included sautéed shrimp in an orange and tequila cream sauce; and chicken breast stuffed with chorizo, a poblano chile and cheese, under a mole sauce ($11.95 each).

For my main dish, I chose carnitas Don Jose ($10.95) roast pork. This version is marinated in chicken broth, evaporated milk and tequila, and it's as flavorful as it sounds. All entrées come with a loose preparation of mashed beans, plus Spanish rice, and ours also had small shredded salads on the plates.

Johnnie had the pescado Veracruzano ($11.95). Told that the fish was flounder, she was disappointed to find it was scrod, although it was cooked well and tangy from the wine and lime juice. The normal preparation is a bit hot, so as with all entrées in restaurants where bunches of chilies dangle in the kitchen, you should specify if you prefer things mild. (Spice girls and guys: if Don José's usual salsa won't test your mettle, you can request a pan-roasted three-chili alternate. Take note also that the bottled table sauce is made from habaneros, which are to jalapeños what gunpowder is to salt.)

The kitchen-made desserts, none more than $3, include carrot cake, and fresh papaya in a caramelized sauce. We had the flan, which is cooked long enough here to have a creamier consistency than most of the others I've had. Delicious.

Oh, yes, the ceviche. To me this was the claim to fame of the old place, a thick medley of shrimp, mussels and squid "cooked" in lime juice and served in a red cocktail-like sauce. Exquisite and plentiful enough to serve two as an appetizer. Being so chock-full, it would probably be a loss leader at $6.95, if it were on the regular menu. But Jaime assures me he will serve it upon request, using ingredients marinated for other dishes, so I'm passing on the word.

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